There is precedent for what the USC men's water polo team faces in 1997 ... although Trojan coaches John Williams and Jovan Vavic think they can avoid it.
After losing five starters, including three All-Americans -- who led USC to a second-place national finish, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title and a 23-3 record (7-1 in MPSF play) -- the Trojans will look to reload and keep their place among the nation's elite. Williams remembers previous years when USC lost a similar amount of talent, but believes this year may be different.
"We've gone through other transition years," said Williams, who is 403-243-7 and entering his 25th year as head coach. "One was in 1985, where we lost six of our top eight players from the previous season. In 1989, the same thing happened. Both years we were down a little bit (USC didn't qualify for the NCAA Tournament), though we came back in following years.
"This year, though, we have a little more coming back than those two years. We have more depth and more young people who can step in and play for us."
Said Vavic, who was promoted by Williams to co-head coach after the 1994 season: "We're not going to have the same team, but we have young players who can step into the shoes of those who graduated. I don't know how quickly they'll be good, but eventually they will be."
Obviously, some think that there won't be much dropoff. The Trojans are ranked No. 2 in the coaches' preseason national poll and they're picked to finish third by the coaches in the always-difficult MPSF.
Williams and Vavic, who shared MPSF Coach of the Year honors in 1996, are assisted by Sasha Bucur and Marko Zagar.
Two of USC's four 1996 All-Americans from Croatia return the lead the team. Zagar and Hrvoje Cizmic, both first team All-Americans and Troy's top two scorers last season, are gone, but seniors Simun Cimerman and Mateo Juric are back and ready to move into starring roles.
Cimerman was USC's third-leading scorer in 1996 with 51 points and was named to the All-American second team. Juric was fourth on the team with 47 points and was named to the All-American third team. Both drivers are strong possibilities to become first team selections this season.
"Simun is very tough and will probably be the best shooter in collegiate water polo this season," Vavic said. "He's a veteran and someone who will have to carry us this year. Mateo is one of the top players in all of NCAA water polo. He's a Magic Johnson-type of player who can set, guard, drive and shoot. When he's on, he's very difficult to defend."
After Cimerman and Juric, USC is a very young team. There are no returning juniors, so a group of sophomores will be asked to make a big contribution.
"The key to this team will be our sophomores," Williams said. "James Castle, Allen Basso, Luke Daniels, Richard McEvoy and Johnathon Hewko are important players. If those five come through, we have a chance to be a very good team."
McEvoy should take over as goalie for the departed Brendan Grubbs, who may have been the most consistent goalie in the NCAA last season and achieved second team All-American honors for the second year in a row. McEvoy is a former member of the U.S. Junior National team who appeared in seven games last season and made 18 saves.
"Richard has great talent and is a good communicator," Vavic said. "He understands the game well and wants to win badly."
Castle, a 2-meter man, is expected to develop into one of USC's top scorers. A starter on the U.S. Junior National team the last two years, he scored 17 points for the Trojans in 1996.
"James had a fabulous summer with the Junior National team," Williams said. "He's a very tough young man who could be one of the surprise players in the NCAA this year."
Daniels (six points), Basso (three points), Hewko (two points) and fellow sophomore Matthew Bohm (one point) all saw playing time in 1996 and will look for increased opportunities this year.
USC also has six redshirt freshmen who will try to break into the playing rotation for the first time. They include drivers J.J. Arden and James Farley, 2-meter men Sean Hylton, Zack Lowell and Sean Stuart and goalie Ian Laughlin. A seventh redshirt freshman, driver Stever O'Rourke, was expected to be an important player but was lost for the season when he was hit by a car, breaking his right arm.
Several transfers join the squad as well. USC may have lost two Croatians, but gains another in Marko Pintaric, a junior driver from Zagreb. Another newcomer from outside the U.S. is Thiago Hornos, a sophomore driver from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Both have played for their respective junior national teams.
More locally, junior driver Erik Larson and sophomore goalie Darin Smith join the team after both attended Golden West College and Marina High School in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Rounding out the squad is a large group of talented freshmen and transfers, almost all of whom will likely redshirt. The exception is Grant McCann, a true freshman driver from Laguna Beach (Calif.) High.
"Grant is a very hard-working young man with good speed and good physical size. He just lacks experience but he will play a little bit for us this year," Williams said. "The other freshmen will probably redshirt. But if any of the others can be contributors and go in and play, we're going to let them. If there's a freshman who can help this team become a conference or national champion, then he's going to get the opportunity to play."
In order to repeat as MPSF champions and compete for a national title, the coaches are counting on two things: smart play and good health.
"I think we have to be careful in how we play the game this year," Williams said. "We can't make a lot of mistakes early in the game and fall behind. I don't think we'll have the firepower to come back like we did last year, although last year we were seldom behind. This team has really got to concentrate on playing fundamental water polo and eliminating turnovers so we can keep ourselves in the game."
Said Vavic: "If we're healthy, we'll be OK. It's important for everyone to play together because we're a young team, and we haven't played much together before and haven't been tested at this level. But I'm confident that they're going to be great. I feel comfortable with this team because we have some outstanding players."
Outstanding enough, the coaches believe, to set new precedent in 1997.